The understated manner in which San Antonio Spurs All-Pro Tim Duncan announced his retirement this past summer – a two-sentence announcement on the team’s website – speaks to his individual makeup and the Spurs’ organizational culture.
To appreciate Duncan’s career and the Spurs’ remarkable consistency, one only has to look to head coach Gregg Popovich as the maestro of the well-oiled symphony. It’s been an amazing ascent, for which I had a brief front-row seat years ago when Popovich was a relative unknown.
To digress, Popovich was a solid basketball player for the Air Force Academy, who after serving his five years of duty upon graduation, returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach. In 1979, he took the head coaching job at tiny NCAA Division III school Pomona-Pitzer, a highly acclaimed academic institution but not a hotbed of basketball talent. He went 2-22 in his first year and was a nondescript 76-129 in eight years.
Popovich took a coaching sab – batical for the 1985-86 season, which originally included plans to spend time observing the work of six respected college head coaches. He started at North Carolina under Dean Smith and then headed to Kansas to learn at the foot of Larry Brown. Despite having been cut by Brown twice (for the 1972 Olympic Team and the NBA’s Denver Nuggets), Popovich had great admiration for him and would stay the remainder of the season in Lawrence, Kansas.
During that time, I was working in the Kansas media relations office and got to know “Pop,” as he is known. We even shared a room on one road trip thanks to a rooming list snafu.
Popovich would go back to Pomona-Pitzer for one year, then join Brown as an assistant coach for the Spurs in 1988. After several years as an assistant (Spurs, Golden State) and general manager (Spurs), he became the San Antonio head coach in 1996. While I quickly came to learn Popovich had a good feel for the game and people, I had no idea he would become one of the best coaches in any sport.
His strengths are multifaceted. When you observe the Spurs, you see talent that complements each other, displays of amazing poise in times of pressure (by both players and coaches) and great cohesiveness/communication in game situations. In an interview earlier this year with ESPN, Popovich provided a look into his management style:
“We’re looking for character … we’re looking for people who have gotten over themselves.”
“A sense of humor is a huge thing for us. You’ve got to be able to laugh. You have to be able to take a dig, and give a dig … and to feel comfortable in your own skin that you do not have all of the answers.”
“We want people who are participatory. The guys in the film room can tell me what they think.”
“We need people who can handle information and not take it personally, because most of the time in these organizations there’s a big divide. All of the sudden a wall goes up between management and coaching, and everybody is ready to blame back and forth. That’s the rule rather than the exception. But it’s about people. It’s about finding people who have those qualities. So, we do our best to look for that. When somebody comes, they figure it out pretty quickly.”
What Popovich espouses is something every organization should heed. While I have never walked in the shoes of a golf course superintendent, my observations tell me Popovich would fit in well with the turf manager community. He understands that while technical knowledge is important, it is the human element that is the most important factor in team success.